Preparing Girls with Disabilities for Life’s Challenges through Self-Advocacy & Empowerment

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In August, we wrapped up our first ever Self-Advocacy & Empowerment workshop for girls in our afterschool program at the Enoch school in Tel Aviv. We designed the pilot interactive workshop, funded by the L’Oréal Foundation for Women, to give the girls the necessary tools to understand harmful, abusive, violent or exploitative situations and relationships. In addition, by providing real-world information as well as deconstructing the socialization process that creates stereotypical perceptions of females and disabilities, the aim was to empower them to reject society’s norms and instead, believe in themselves.

Topics covered over the 14 weekly sessions included body health, hygiene and sexuality, as well as self-awareness and confidence through debunking beauty ideals and gender socialization. Most critical, since girls and women with disabilities experience ten times the rate of sexual exploitation, violence, and psychological abuse than those without disabilities (half before the age of 15), the workshop focused consent, abuse and how to recognize, avoid, and seek help against exploitation.

The 13 participants ranged in age from 12 to 21 and live with mild to moderate intellectual disabilities, Down syndrome, epilepsy, mild developmental disabilities, and cerebral abscesses.

According to Liat Segev, one of the two workshop facilitators, the course worked by creating a safe, pleasant and enabling space where we started out with a routine of asking each girl to speak about something they went through during the week. “The girls seemed excited each week to speak and listen to each other and adorably share their story about something that happened in their life.”

Segev reported that the girls took to heart, core workshop messages such as “my body is mine only and it is in my possession alone” and “being beautiful means being yourself. You don’t need others to accept you. You have to accept yourself.”

When discussing “my support circles” – the friends and family they can turn to share their problems including possible abuse, the girls brought in pictures of the people who are important to them and explained why. One girl brought in a picture of all the other girls in the group, which led to a discussion on how the girls in the group were together a support circle for each other and information shared in the workshop was theirs alone.

The last meeting was festive and exciting event – a ceremony and party, where the girls received framed certificates and a gift of a wire bound journal, marking their successful course completion. There was a photomontage set to music, showing the girls in their activities. Each girl had a parent there and managers from Chimes Israel’s executive offices attended. The two facilitators called each girl to the front of the room by name, she was cheered on her peers, and photographed accepting her award from the facilitators. One workshop participant’s mother stood up and spoke extemporaneously about how the workshop has given the girls tools to cope with challenges such as entering adulthood, alleviating anxieties, and moving through life in our society.

Keren Hagag, one of the two facilitators, spoke at the ceremony to the girls themselves: “The whole workshop was constructively designed with a lot of thought, but very quickly we realized that you are the ones writing the rhythm. When you felt close and safe enough, you allowed us to get to know your deepest inner world. Thank you, for giving us trust and for teaching us so much about sensitivity, kindness, friendship, and especially how much love you have. Thank you for the meaningful moments, putting your trust in us, and giving us the privilege to go through this amazing journey with you!”

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